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Saturday Spotlight: Jaylon Johnson

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at cornerback Jaylon Johnson.

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Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Name: Jaylon Johnson

Position: Cornerback

Number: 33

Age: 21

Time with Bears: Rookie

The Past:

“Six seconds to go in the game. Stafford again going into the endzone. Tipped, incomplete! It was Jaylon Johnson, the rookie, knocking it away and the game is over!”

Welcome to the NFL, young buck.

The football program at the University of Utah doesn’t get the respect it probably deserves. After all, they’ve only been in a Power-5 conference for a decade now. It was a just quick head coaching stop for Urban Meyer, before he took over at bigger schools like Florida and Ohio State. It’s in a state without a border to a solid recruiting hub of players. All the good LDS (Mormon) players go play at BYU, right?

In 2004, Utah promoted Kyle Whittingham to the helm of their program, and he’s been quietly amassing success ever since. With the exception of a 2-year stretch between 2012-13, the team has finished above .500 every year under Whittingham. In those winning seasons, they’ve had: Back-to-back Las Vegas Bowl victories, a win over Marvin Jones Jr. and the California Golden Bears in the Poinsettia Bowl, and an impressive 2009 Sugar Bowl upset win over Alabama to cap off a perfect 13-0 season.

So maybe it’s less surprising that the #16 cornerback in the nation wanted to play for the Utes.

Jaylon Johnson was part of a solid recruiting class. According to ESPN, Johnson was one of five 4-star recruits that year. Johnson was the most highly-touted recruit though, and for a reason. In just his second game as a freshman, he rewarded coach Whittingham well. In the “Holy War” matchup with BYU, Cougars quarterback Tanner Mangum dropped back and threw a rushed pass as the edges of his pocket collapsed around him. His receiver had run a good route, but the ball was underthrown. 18-year old Jaylon Johnson ran under it and secured the interception. Utah won that game, making it their 7th consecutive victory in the heated rivalry between the two schools. Johnson also finished that game with 2 passes defensed, and finished the year with a healthy stat line of 23 solo tackles, 6 passes defensed.

Johnson broke out in his sophomore year, with an exceptional 8-tackle game against Northern Illinois University and an interception in an upset win over the University of Southern California. His highlight of the year, though, came against Stanford. KJ Costello, junior quarterback for the Cardinal, dropped back to throw in the red zone and saw his man with a potential 1-on-1 matchup in the endzone. Unfortunately for Costello, the receiver wasn’t on the same page. He failed to box out, and Johnson undercut a float pass in stride. With nobody to outrun but Costello himself, Johnson was able to track 100 yards the other direction for a touchdown, the first score of his college career. He finished his sophomore year with 31 solo tackles, including 2 tackles for a loss, and 4 interceptions.

Utah v Washington Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Johnson began his junior year with another impressive game against BYU, this time with a pass breakup and 4 solo tackles. A month later, against Washington State, he picked off his first pass of the season. The next game, against Oregon State: 7 solo tackles. Johnson established himself as a well-rounded cornerback who can play all over, and go stride-for-stride with the best receivers in the game. After his standout junior season, including another impressive undercut route for a pick-6 against Washington, Johnson was named to the First-Team All-PAC-12 squad. With an invite to the NFL combine and a few NFL draft scouts watching his tape, Johnson elected to take his talents to the pros.

The Present:

The Bears selected Johnson with the latter of their second-round picks after claiming Cole Kmet to secure their tight end position. Chicago desperately needed stability at the cornerback position opposite Kyle Fuller, with veteran Prince Amukumara cut as a cap casualty (on top of health concerns) and undrafted 3rd-year cornerback Kevin Toliver filling in for stretches of 2019. Once drafted, Johnson entered training camp competing with Toliver, former 1st-round pick Artie Burns, and the as-yet-unproven Duke Shelley for the starting cornerback position. Toliver was cut, Burns didn’t last long before ending up on IR, and Johnson earned his spot to cover receivers in front of star safety Eddie Jackson.

Johnson has performed extraordinarily well in his first year as a pro, not only by rookie standards but by all popular metrics for grading cornerbacks. He’s already racked up 22 solo tackles through the first half of the season, and broken up 12 passes to go along with it. After 2 weeks of the 2020 season, Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears rookie as the 3rd highest-graded cornerback in the NFL. Again, that’s not just rookies, that’s the entire NFL. At the midway point in the season, PFF still has him on their All-Rookie team. He’s been disciplined, too, with only 3 defensive pass interference penalties called against him in a year where it feels like the DPI flags are thrown before the ball even is. If there’s a weak spot to this Bears secondary, it surely isn’t Jaylon Johnson.

The future:

Johnson is going to be a staple of this Bears defensive secondary for years to come. He’s only a rookie and his starting spot is well-secured, and if injuries don’t prevent it, then he should earn a second contract by the end of his third year in Chicago. With Kyle Fuller only 28, and Eddie Jackson 26 years old, the no-fly zone at Soldier Field should only get scarier for opponents.

The one stat which is missing from Johnson’s professional career thus far is interceptions. He has yet to pick off a pass, although he had the opportunities. Tipped passes are more what he does best, and it will likely take a teammate tipping a ball up and Johnson running under it to secure an easy interception. Luckily, Kirk Cousins leads the Minnesota Vikings into Chicago for a Monday Night Football matchup. If history is any indication, “Primetime” Kirk Cousins will show up and start giving away freebies. Mark it down, Johnson will get his first NFL pick in this one.

Week 10 prediction:

2 solo, 4 total tackles, 1 INT, 1 PD